Who's getting hot before the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs begin?

Who's getting hot before the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs begin?
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What a difference a year makes. The discussion of a Big Three in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has diminished greatly in 2019.

Two-thirds of the way into this season, only Kyle Busch remains in the top three in the standings. 

Over the first 24 races, the Playoff picture has changed. Several drivers have established themselves, if not as title contenders, then as competitors who demand consideration in the Playoff conversation. While many teams have made gains after the first 12 races, others have hit the skids over the summer months.

Joey Logano had a nine-point advantage over Kyle Busch following Race 12 at Kansas Speedway. There were only six winners at that juncture—Busch and Brad Keselowski had three wins each, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin with two apiece. Logano and Chase Elliott each had one victory.

Over the next 12 races, Alex Bowman, Justin Haley, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick added their names to the win column. Truex, Kyle Busch, Logano, Hamlin, Elliott and Harvick added victories to their totals.

Kyle Busch vaulted over Logano in the standings after Watkins Glen and extended his lead to 39 points in the last three races, as the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has averaged an 18.6-place finish. Logano, the defending series champion, has been in the top five in points all season long. He has been first or second in points after 20 of 24 races. But it has been four races since Logano posted a top-10 finish. And with two races left before the Playoffs begin, an off week could not have come at a better time for Logano and crew to recharge their batteries. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum sits Denny Hamlin. Sure, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team was the first to lock into the postseason with a Daytona 500 win. Yet in the last 12 races, Hamlin has climbed from seventh to third in the standings—a much harder task against NASCAR’s cream of the crop. While Logano and company have struggled in the last four races, Hamlin has won twice and has finished no worse than third in the last five Cup events.

Logano, who remains second in the standings, still has a 38-point lead over third-place Hamlin. But the No. 11 crew has proven how quickly the tide can turn. 

Here are other drivers making gains or fading away over the past 12 races:

1. William Byron—Byron was 19th in the standings after Kansas. Under the direction of crew chief Chad Knaus, and returning to tracks a second time, he has advanced seven positions. Byron has improved his qualifying significantly with back-to-back poles at Charlotte and Pocono, not to mention his first top-five finishes—a career-best second at Daytona and a fourth at Pocono.

2. Clint Bowyer—With a fifth-place finish at Kansas, Bowyer jumped up to ninth in points. But the affable driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has been on the skids of late. In the last 12 races, Bowyer has one top five (June Pocono) and three top 10s. Perhaps the stark difference lies in his four DNFs—all the result of crashes—which have dropped Bowyer to 17th in the standings with two races to decide the Playoff grid.  

3. Kevin Harvick—While Bowyer has struggled over the last dozen races, his SHR teammate had made solid gains during that same time period—until he suffered his first mechanical failure of the season during the Bristol Night Race. Harvick’s 39th-place finish knocked him  back to fifth in the standings for the first time in 10 races. Still, during that same period the No. 4 crew picked up two wins and didn’t finish worse than seventh in the previous four races. Expect Harvick to bounce back at Darlington where he has one win, five top fives and six top 10s in his last six starts.

4. Austin Dillon—For the last three years, Dillon has qualified for the Playoffs—once on points, the last two seasons with wins. After Kansas, Dillon was 18th in the standings and still in striking distance of a transfer spot. But like Bowyer, over the last 12 races the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevy has been mired in points following three DNFs (crashes) and a rash of bad luck. Ten races into 2019, Dillon was 14th in points. His average finish in the last 12 races was 27.3.

5. Kyle Larson—Back-to-back wrecks at Richmond and Talladega dropped Larson from 14th to 21st in  the standings after 10 races. He closed out the first third of the season with a third-place run at Dover and an eighth-place finish at Kansas and moved up to 15th. Although Larson added two DNFs to his season total of five in his last 12 starts, he’s shaved three spots from his average finish in the second-half. With finishes of eighth or better in his last four starts, Larson has elevated the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team from 14th in points to 11th.

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